Among the Book of Deuteronomy's many distinctions, the emergence of a Mosaic voice conveying a personal, synoptic narration of events, struggles, successes, and failures renders this last Book of Torah especially compelling. As it progresses, Moses's character develops into that of a more complex, nuanced figure of a leader who must face his failings and limitations, and prepare for his final departure. The book opens with a review that explains the Israelites' long journey in the desert through the recollection of certain moments and dynamics, and offers a framework for a new iteration of the covenant. For example, as the first portion of this book, Parashat D'varim, unfolds, we recall the appointment of judges and leaders that we read about in Exodus 18. The focus of this passage (Deuteronomy 1:9-17) is Moses's interaction with the Israelites. Jethro's role in this innovation, which is prominent in Exodus, is omitted here, and other aspects of the Exodus account are altered.
Yet, most of this week's parashah is devoted to the military victories and defeats that account for the Israelites' situation and inform strategies for future campaigns. To introduce this sequence of battles, the Mosaic narrator evokes the episode of the scouts, or spies, who were sent to tour the Land of Israel, collect information, and share it upon their return. The report that appears in our parashah differs substantially from the longer account found in Numbers 13-14. A few salient variations are especially important.
To begin, in Deuteronomy Moses indicates that the decision to appoint and send the spies was made in response to the Israelites' demands (Deuteronomy 1:22), whereas in Numbers Moses sent the spies according to God's command (Numbers 13:1-3). Also, the mission of the spies is presented differently in the two accounts. The Numbers passage suggests that the spies were asked to collect information about geography, agriculture, demography, and fortifications, as well as to assess the strength of the local population (13:18-20). In contrast, the mission of the spies as the Israelites themselves define it in Deuteronomy is to identify invasion routes and create a list of targets to attack first. While the questions given the spies in Numbers could support a comprehensive evaluation on whether or not to attack the Land, the passage in Deuteronomy indicates a narrower mission that excludes any deliberation about possible military action, and simply addresses the best ways to carry it out.
More importantly, the summary of the spies' account in Deuteronomy is brief, partial, and positive, while the Israelites' reaction to it is negative and assumes knowledge of troubling aspects of the spies' conclusions from other sources. In contrast, the majority of spies' accounts in Numbers are clear, more detailed, and discouraging. Then, according to the narrative in Numbers, Joshua and Caleb take the lead in arguing for an invasion of the Land while Moses and Aaron intercede with the people. In Deuteronomy, on the other hand, Moses is both a key proponent of military action and the frontline critic of his people's skeptical unwillingness to follow the divine plan: Caleb and Joshua's vocal advocacy is cast aside. Finally, God's reaction to the Israelites' despondency in Numbers suggests a willingness to abandon Israel and allow Moses to inherit the Chosen People's place (Numbers 14:12). However, God's reaction in Deuteronomy entails a punishment of all Israelites that excludes Caleb and Joshua, but includes Moses, who complains that he is penalized on account of his unruly followers (Deuteronomy 1:37). Thus, the episode of the spies as it is presented in these opening lines of Deuteronomy constitutes a turning point. This time, its implications bear upon Israel as a collective as well as on Moses personally, sealing his fate and excluding him from entrance into the Promised Land.
The incongruities in these accounts and Moses's disturbing punishment have long occupied biblical commentators, many of whom have labored to reconcile these texts and make sense of Moses's predicament. One such commentator, R. Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides (a thirteenth century scholar and Jewish leader in Christian Spain), attributed the divine sentence imposed upon Moses to his failure to follow God's specific instructions when providing water to the encampment following the death of Miriam (Numbers 20:1-13). Nachmanides argued that by publicly departing from God's dictum, Moses contributed to an atmosphere of laxity and disrespect for God's holy word (20:10).
Striking the rock instead of speaking to it was effective in producing drinkable water. Yet, Moses's behavior could be perceived by the multitude as reflecting a lack of complete confidence in God's command. Indeed, had Moses's misguided action been ineffective, the lesson learned by observers would perhaps have been quite different.
However, in the commentator's view, the demonstration that God's directives were negotiable would lead to the kind of questioning, debate, and undermining of authority that were evident in the episode of the spies. The Deuteronomic account of this crisis also suggests a possible failure of political insight on Moses's part. Moses was dragged into this adventure by popular demand. If he perceived the mission of the spies to be limited and tactical, rather than political and strategic, the report and debate that followed the fact-finding mission clearly transcended their intended limitations. Moses was unable to control the process.
The spies' report led to a questioning and an undermining of Israel's faith. As Moses addressed his people, he reminded them that God had carried and supported them throughout their journey in the desert as one would his or her own child. He chastised them, saying: "you have no faith in the Eternal your God (Deuteronomy 1:32). Moses, who would prepare the Israelites to successfully cross the Jordan and invade their Promised Land under Joshua's command, had presided over a debate that set Israel back politically, militarily, and spiritually. Nachmanides understood Moses's critique as containing the meaning of the entire portion. He wrote: "there is no hindrance or obstacle, but for a deficit of faith." This indeed is the core of our parashah and the opening to the Book of Deuteronomy. The challenges of effective leadership-let alone the Israelites' struggle to observe and evaluate the world as it is while maintaining a sense of mission and purpose-would not end with the conquest of Land or the construction of a Temple. Our ability to appreciate these struggles bears witness to the beautiful composition of this text.
Dr. Jonathan Cohen , associate professor of Talmud and Halachic Literature, was appointed dean of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on September 1, 2011. He has served as the Director of the HUC-UC Ethics Center since January 2001.